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In depth: Are women still getting a raw deal?

Eighteen months ago AM said the automotive industry was becoming a far more attractive workplace for women. Around 143,000 had made this sector their career of choice and were helping to change perceptions. But what about women buyers – what’s their view of car retailers and repairers?

Women wield significant – and growing – purchasing power thanks to better careers, more pay and a real interest in cars. Despite some views to the contrary, their first question is no longer “what’s the colour?”.

Carmakers have been quick to realise this. The growth of the two- or even three-car family has led them to tailor some models to the women who are most likely to use them. And they have developed marketing to attract urban, trendy, single women who are financially independent.

Take, for example, Kia with its Picanto, Vauxhall and its Tigra, Suzuki with the new Swift or Toyota’s Yaris. Each vehicle’s TV advert depicts sassy, confident, energetic women who are making the most of their independent lifestyles – precisely the customers the manufacturers hope will buy those models.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement at showroom level if recent research is anything to go by. In an autotrader.co.uk survey of 3,000 women and their motoring needs, researchers found that female drivers complain they are still getting a raw deal. Despite being in the market for a nearly new-car, 59% of those surveyed said they would not feel confident visiting a dealer forecourt alone.

This view is reinforced in a separate study by online motor retailer Jamjar.com, which found 84% of the 3,000 women it consulted fear they are less likely to get the same deal as a male customer.

That’s a worrying issue when you consider than one in two of these women is looking to up-size from her current car, and is very likely to opt for revenue-generating extras such as air-conditioning, parking sensors and satellite navigation.

So what can be done to reassure women car buyers that they will be treated seriously and professionally? Some in the industry believe the motor retail sector’s inherent problem is its historically male-dominated environment, which may intimidate some women.

Yet individual dealers have made efforts to break this mould. Some, like Essex and Hertfordshire group Charvills, host events aimed at women drivers, such as self-defence and anti-road rage courses.

Others have a broader strategy – AM100 No 3 Reg Vardy put together an all-female staff to open its Smart dealership in Glasgow in 2003, although some have since moved to other dealerships in the group.

Mhairi-Claire Keegan became Reg Vardy’s first female service manager three years ago, employed at its Fiat and Alfa Romeo dealership in Glasgow. Now there are three more women in the same role at other Vardy dealerships.

Nevertheless, Keegan admits she came into the retail motor industry “by accident”, having previously had receptionist and customer adviser jobs outside the sector. She believes the issue of women customers getting a poorer deal is a misconception.

“The more that women are told this the more they feel it must be true,” she says. “However, when they actually come into the dealership and realise how professional staff are now they are reassured it isn’t the case.”

Keegan points out that, from her experience, while some women customers prefer to consult with female staff, there are many who prefer a male’s assistance.

Steve Shaw, director of automotive specialist Ingenia Resourcing and Recruitment, says work still needs to be done to attract more women into sales and service.

“Attracting school leavers is key. The problem is that too many people pay lip service to recruiting women and do not really set out to accommodate them,” he says. “They need to give them more attention, guidance and reassurance during the formative years if they are to seriously consider this sector as a career.”

Shaw also believes that if dealerships were more flexible towards the commitments of their staff outside work, this would help even the balance.

“Couldn’t women be given an opportunity to start work after they’ve dropped the children off at school and then allowed time to collect them again that afternoon before returning to work once their partners get home?” he suggests. “If this was achieved, maybe employers would receive more long-term loyalty.”

This view is shared by Jamie Redmond, recently appointed as business development manager at the Institute for the Motor Industry after three years as HR manager with dealer group William Jacks. Redmond argues that flexible working practices, such as job sharing and home-working, are still rare finds at dealership level.

“More women are entering the industry in specialist roles such as HR, marketing and accounting, but recruitment into sales is still slow, maybe because of the hours and weekends required,” she says.

Redmond suggests the industry could do more to promote its female high-achievers, such as her boss, IMI chief executive Sarah Sillars, to the outside world.

Sillars’ task is to combat the industry-wide shortage of skilled sales and technical staff and to help make the sector more appealing to all people, not just women.

But she realises that the attitudes of schools and parents can be the greatest obstacle to overcome. Few young people are encouraged to consider an apprenticeship at a franchised dealership when they meet careers advisers during their final years at school.

“Some companies do a good job with liaising with their local schools, but we need an over-arching approach that will open young people’s minds nationwide to the careers we have on offer,” says Sillars.

Women want options...

Sales executives need to be on their toes because research has shown that 21st century women are arming themselves with more product knowledge than ever before and are ready to enter the dealership in search of the right car for the right price.

Some spend up to two months looking at suitable vehicles on the market and poring over internet sites and consumer motoring magazines before deciding on their next set of wheels.

Louise Vaughan of Jamjar Cars explains: “Traditionally, women would consult their father or husband when buying a car but that’s not necessarily the case any more. They have enough information of their own from specialist magazines and TV programmes.”

Many young women remain fairly open minded, choosing to draw up a shortlist of cars instead of deciding on one particular model. This can give them more bargaining power when it comes to the dealership point of sale, as they can fall on their other options if the deal isn’t right.

However a key point for many is specification, says Vaughan. If the standard equipment isn’t up to scratch women will plough through the options list in pursuit of comfort and practicality. Parking sensors, air-conditioning, satellite-navigation and a CD-changer are all high on the wish-list – and these will create extra revenue for the dealership.

And many women would love the cars of the future to have an automatic parking system, a dividing panel that would allow them to shut out the children’s noise, and a rear window message display to warn tailgaters. Manufacturers take note.

The consumer view

High quality aftersales care and a female-friendly environment are essential if dealerships hope to retain a woman customer after she’s bought her car. That’s according to Emily Dean, Mini owner and contributing editor at New Woman magazine.

“I’ve gone into fast-fit garages and instantly felt very conscious of what I’m wearing. You get the feeling that with a bunch of young guys there you’re being checked out sexually,” she says. “Maybe it’s paranoia, but as a lone female customer in a testosterone-packed environment it can make you feel very uncomfortable.”

Dean admits her opinion has been influenced by the experience of having been overcharged in the past by an unscrupulous garage, and having been to workshops where the walls were adorned with posters of Page 3 girls. She now uses an independent mechanic who came recommended by a female friend.

Nevertheless, she welcomes moves by the industry to clean up its image, such as offering fixed price services, providing invoices which detail all work done and explaining any technical jargon. “Some women like to play the clueless female and think the guys might take pity on them,” says Dean. “I’ve done it in the past – I didn’t want to know what was done as long as my car was fixed. But now I’m trying to learn a bit more about my car.”

Five top women in the motor industry

Sarah Sillars, chief executive Institute of the Motor Industry

Sillars became chief executive of the IMI in 2002, having gained knowledge of the industry while training dealer management staff for Ford on a contract with Anne Gray Associates.

Since joining the IMI, she has dug into the issues of skills shortages and technician accreditation with the conviction that the industry will rid itself of its poor reputation and provide an attractive career path to more school leavers, graduates and employees who can bring skills from outside the sector.

Patricia Richards, chief executive, Automotive Skills

Former management consultant and now head of Automotive Skills, the Government-backed sector skills organisation, Richards leads the ARMS (Automotive Retail Management Skills) programme designed to raise skills levels and attract top quality recruits.

Women, ethnic minorities and graduates are all firmly in Richards’ sights, and although she’s conscious of the automotive industry’s comparatively poor profile, she expects to put up a strong fight with rival sectors to attract the best personnel.

Sue Brownson OBE, managing director, Blue Bell BMW Group

Brownson not only heads a £100m turnover dealer group in Cheshire which has held the BMW franchise for 30 years, but she has been heavily involved in many organisations related to the motor industry.

As a director of ReMIT, the training division of the RMI, and Automotive Skills, she is continually pushing for reform.

Brownson has held presidencies of the RMI, National Franchised Dealers Association and trade charity BEN, and is a former chair of the BMW Dealer Council.

Pauline Wiseman, head of human resource operations Honda UK

In her 12 years at Honda UK, Wiseman has notched up accomplishments that have brought widespread benefits to its retail network. One crowning glory was founding the Honda Institute, of which she was head from launch in 1998 until assuming her current post in 2002.

It set a benchmark for the brand’s technical and sales training across Europe. Other achievements include chairing the SMMT’s education committee and introducing Honda’s approved used car programme.

Bibiana Boerio, managing director, Jaguar Cars

Boerio took the hot seat at Jaguar’s Coventry HQ last July to tackle poor sales in the US and mounting losses at its UK plants. She proved her worth within months, working with PAG bosses on the decision to close Jaguar’s Browns Lane assembly plant to bring production back into line with sales.

Previously, she served as director of strategy and finance for Ford’s international operations division, chief finance officer at Ford Credit, and finance director at Jaguar Cars, where she chaired the Jaguar women’s marketing committee.

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